Esteemed by Amazonian Indigenous Communities, Pau D’arco Established Its Uses Throughout Brazil
In the Purus National Forest, a protected area in Brazil’s Amazon basin, the native pau d’arco tree (Handroanthus impetiginosus, Bignoniaceae) stands taller than its counterparts, reaching up to 40 metres in height. For Indigenous peoples who call the Amazon rainforest home, pau d’arco is considered a miracle tree: when under threat, taking refuge below its branches is said to protect one from harm. Some of these communities have been taking its bark’s decoction for nearly all sorts of conditions for centuries.
In southern areas of the country, pau d’arco has been used as a treatment against cancer since the 1960s. Its use was popularized by a pioneer of Brazilian herbalism, Professor Walter Accorsi, who successfully treated various types of tumours, as well as gastritis and rheumatic pain, with the plant. An agronomist by trade, he valued traditional knowledge and devoted his life to studying the healing power of plants. Accorsi developed his own pau d’arco formula and freely provided it to hundreds of people in need. “He taught that pau d’arco rapidly increases red blood cell count while slowing down tumour growth,” relates pharmacist Carla Accorsi, the professor’s granddaughter-in-law. “The tincture possesses analgesic properties and the extract, in some cases, soothes cancer-related pain.” Prof. Accorsi passed away in 2006, but his groundbreaking experiments remain foundational in present-day research on the medicinal properties of the plant.
At her herbal pharmacy in the city of Piracicaba, São Paulo state, Carla Accorsi carries on Prof. Accorsi’s legacy. Behind the counter, staff expertly test the purity of countryside-harvested pau d’arco bark and rush to prepare supplements targeting diverse pain-inducing conditions. Carla recommends pau d’arco tea for milder ailments; a tincture for migraines, cramps, and acute pain; and syrup for children and people who are alcohol-intolerant. Capsules and a compound extract developed by Prof. Accorsi are prescribed to a range of oncological patients. “We work with pau d’arco as a complementary medicine alongside conventional treatments against cancer,” Carla says, “and we’ve seen great results. Patients undergoing chemotherapy, for example, experience less severe side effects when they take the plant concurrently. They may also require fewer chemo sessions, provided that they use quality-verified medicine and follow their prescribed treatment plan.”
Not too far away from Piracicaba, in Jardinópolis, São Paulo state, pau d’arco serves as an effective treatment for a variety of skin conditions. At her clinic, dermatologist Telma Chiaratti recommends taking pau d’arco tincture three times a day for eczema, psoriasis, or skin allergies. “I’ve noticed a diminishment of acute episodes of skin allergies, improving patients’ quality of life,” Chiaratti says. “Pau d’arco remedies balance the patient as a whole, on a holistic level … That’s the beauty of phytotherapy! We know it has anti-inflammatory, anti-allergenic, antimicrobial, vulnerary, analgesic, antitumour, and immunomodulatory properties, as has been demonstrated by lab research.” She notes that these properties concord with traditional knowledge systematized in Brazilian popular pharmacopoeias.
Chiaratti also works at Land of Ismael Nature‘s Pharmacy, a community-run clinic that provides free herbal remedies through the SUS (Sistema Unico de Saude), Brazil’s equitable, free and democratic health-care system. The facility features a botanical garden, where pau d’arco trees grow among patches of native Atlantic rainforest, and springwater spots. Land of Ismael is one of the most successful outcomes of Living Pharmacies, a federal policy enacted in 2010 with the goal of expanding the population’s access to herbal medicine and fostering traditional knowledge on regional flora.
In the late fall in Amazonas state, the pink blooms of the pau d’arco are gathered by wise women from an ecovillage to make flower essences. Holistic therapist Maria Alice Campos Freire developed a Brazilian flower therapy system called Florais da Amazônia, which counts the blossoms of the pau d’arco among its 72 remedies. Freire lived in the Amazon rainforest for over 20 years, sitting by pau d’arco trees deep in the jungle to channel their core message. “We’ve learned that pau d’arco flower essence acts on the deepest levels of consciousness of those who take it regularly, awakening feelings of compassion, forgiveness, and acceptance,” she says. “I really do believe in its healing power.” She recommends this essence to transform degenerative patterns and support the soul’s evolution on Earth. “Patients come back to my clinic with new health problems, because their initial ailment is completely healed thanks to the treatment. The essence triggers a very subtle restorative process.” Freire is also a member of the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers, a non-profit alliance of female elders working toward nature conservation, international peace, and justice.
The pau d’arco tree is the official symbol of many cities throughout Brazil, including the capital, Brasília. Closely related Handroanthus species bloom in a rainbow of colours — magenta, lemon yellow, creamy white — kicking off an impressive spectacle that brings people together for viewing parties in the springtime. The lush beauty of the pau d’arco has inspired many tales on its origin that are kept alive in Brazilian popular culture. This extraordinary tree is a feast for the eye, a remedy for the body, and solace for the soul.
By Lilian Caramel, Journalist and Pacific Rim College Alumna (Certificate 2014)
Edited by Laura MacAulay